McMansions On Wheels
Saturday, January 29 2011 @ 03:00 PM EST
Paula and George Luttrell typically vacation in surroundings as sumptuous as a Four Seasons hotel. There's a big difference, though: Their accommodations are on wheels. The real estate developers from Chattanooga, Tenn., travel around in a 45-foot recreational vehicle that has marble steps, five closets, a queen-size bed, a full-size refrigerator, and front and rear 48-inch plasma TVs. Plus, two motorized "slideouts" expand the living area by as much as 30 inches to 11.5 feet, when the RV is parked.
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The Luttrells -- she's 37, he's 47 -- are part of a thriving high-end RV culture. Contrary to RVs' blue-collar image -- and undeterred by soaring gasoline prices -- a growing number of executives (including Liberty Media (L ) CEO John Malone), doctors, and other professionals prefer to spend their leisure time in coaches that sell for $1 million to $2 million and have interior appointments reminiscent of old-style Pullman cars. Many owners also tow "toy haulers" behind their RVs -- trailers that carry cars, his-and-her motorcycles, golf carts, or motorized Segways.
These RVers may spend nights in campgrounds or Wal-Mart parking lots along with the rest of the camper crowd. But their final destination is often a gated RV resort -- complete with spa, tennis courts, and pools -- in popular vacation spots such as Palm Springs, Calif.; Hilton Head, S.C.; and Naples, Fla., where per-night rates range from $30 to $80. But many RV owners buy lots in these resorts so they can park their rigs for extended stays. At a typical size of 40 feet by 100 feet, this is pricey real estate. Jim Howell, 75, a retired car dealer from Carlisle, Pa., paid $84,000 for his lot at a park near Naples a few years ago and says it's now worth more than $200,000.
This is an elite group. Only about 325 RVs with million-dollar-plus price tags are bought annually by private individuals, figures Karl Blade, owner of Newell Coach, a Miami (Okla.) maker of luxury RVs. A smaller number are leased or purchased by touring entertainers, NASCAR drivers, and others. The biggest makers, such as Marathon Coach in Coburg, Ore., Chicago's Liberty Coach, and Newell say sales are holding up this year. But as a 200-gallon diesel-fuel fill-up approaches $600, smaller players are feeling the pinch. Monaco Coach, in Coburg, Ore., recently decided to close its faltering million-dollar RV business.
IT SURE BEATS FLYING
Longer term, the industry is riding powerful trends. Soon well-heeled baby boomers will be retiring in droves, while fears about terrorism have made flying and overseas vacationing less attractive. "Unless fuel is rationed, I don't think it will have much of an effect," says Frank X. Konigseder, a vice-president at Liberty Coach. Sure, luxury RVs get only six to eight miles per gallon, but most owners put fewer than 10,000 miles on them annually. In any case, says Jim Neely, who owns Memphis' Interstate Bar-B-Que Restaurants and drives a Newell RV: "If you can't afford to spend a couple thousand dollars on fuel during a trip, you shouldn't own one."
The million-dollar-plus market is dominated by Newell, which makes 44 custom-built RVs annually, and Prevost (pronounced "pray-vo") conversions, made by 20 or so companies using the shells of European-style tour buses from Quebec's Prevost Car, a Volvo (VOLVY ) unit. Celebrities who use RVs on tour tend to prefer Prevosts, which have the mechanical guts and suspension of intercity buses and can last a million miles or more.
Private owners have typically been well-heeled retirees. Partial to country music, boating, horse shows, and NASCAR races, "most of 'em made it the hard way," says Liberty owner Sonny Erp, a home developer from Ocala, Fla. That owner profile is changing, though, as RVs get fancier and luxury RV resorts become more prevalent. One exec who's sold on RVs is Liberty Media's (L ) Malone, 64. He's usually at the wheel of his Newell when he and his wife, Leslie, 63, travel between their Colorado home and their ranch in New Mexico. "People are intimidated by the size of the things, but they really aren't hard to run," Malone says. The Malones prefer the RV to flying partly because it's easy to travel with their pets -- five pugs and a Boston bull terrier.
Making friends is part of the appeal. Companies sponsor owners' clubs that organize tours and rallies, as does an umbrella group with more than 1,000 members called Prevost Prouds. As a result of attending Newell rallies, "many of my best friends are other Newell owners," says Neely. Recently the Luttrells went to a three-day gathering in Kentucky horse country that attracted three dozen Liberty RVs. Their owners took a distillery tour, motorcycled together, and went to a concert by country star Randy Travis, who tours in a Liberty.
The pastime's other big lure is flexibility. "When I was young, my parents had a seaside house, and I hated going to the same place all the time," says Ken Dunsire, 73, a retired Lincoln National (LNC ) executive vice-president. He and his wife, Stephanie, 62, put 20,000 miles a year on their custom-built Featherlite coach. Some people keep their coaches packed with clothes and food so they can take off any time. Wayne and Rebecca Battle, both 71, who own a sawmill in Wadley, Ga., often decide where they're going as they're heading out the driveway. They've ended up as far away as Maine and Las Vegas. "We also have a condo in Daytona [Beach, Fla.]," says Wayne, who drives a Liberty, his fifth. "If I had to give up one, I'd keep the coach." A lot of his fellow luxury RVers would say amen to that.